August 18, 2009

Groups Move To Protect Expanse Of Deep Sea Coral

Environmentalists are pushing for the protection of a large swath of coral reef off the Southeastern US coast.

The underwater expanse of creatures and coral lies at the bottom of the Atlantic and spans about 23,000 square miles from North Carolina to Florida.

But the collective is under threat from overfishing and energy prospects, and environmentalists are moving to push legislation that would protect the region.

They claim that crab pots and bottom trawling for shrimp are the greatest threats to the region.

"Most of the time, science is trying to catch up with exploitation," Steve Ross of the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, told the Associated Press.

On August 4, Ross set out on a 4-part cruise to study the underwater region. The team believes it will discover new species of fish, crab and corals.

"In this case, we have 23,000 square miles of known deep sea corals, and it's not too late to protect them," Margot Stiles, a marine scientist for Oceana, told the AP.

"This particular reef is to the deep sea what the Great Barrier Reef is for the world."

The potential for underwater exploration in the region was completely unknown before the early 1900s, when scientists noticed that the reefs were deep below the surface.

It wasn't until the 1970s that scientists were able to catch a glimpse of the deep coral reef with underwater cameras.

Measures to protect the region are being backed by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. The plan would have to pass through the US Commerce Secretary, but could be unveiled as soon as next year.

"As far as we can tell, there's relatively little damage," Ross said. "That's very different from other parts of the world. In Scotland and Ireland ... there's been significant damage mostly from fishing and now those reefs are being protected."

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Florida Atlantic University, the U.S. Geological Survey and others have developed a team aimed at gathering samples by way of a four-man submersible.

"We've barely seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of new species out here," Ross told the AP. "We'll find out five or 10 years from now that we made an amazing discovery and we just didn't realize it ... A lot of our pharmaceuticals come from a tropical rainforest environment. The same people are looking for these in the deep sea, and there are expectations that there will be drugs made that could potentially provide cures for some types of cancer."

"There is just a great deal of concern that once these habitats are gone, the potential for realizing those discoveries are eliminated."


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